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Outdoor play is vital for children (and so much fun!)

2 July 2019

What are your favourite childhood memories?

Chances are you’ll think of playing outside. Climbing a tree. Collecting flowers to make ‘perfume’. Rolling down a grassy hill.

Research supports the overwhelming benefits of outdoor play for children. This is why it’s an integral part of the Early Years Learning Framework (both Belonging, being and becoming and My time, our place) and the National Quality Standard.

 Playing outside ticks so many boxes:

  • physical activity
  • creativity
  • discovery
  • learning through play
  • health and wellbeing
  • social skills
  • independence
  • exploration
  • appreciation of nature
  • relaxing and  having fun.

Janet Callus, authorised officer, has visited a lot of services in her five years with the Education Standards Board. While the organisation doesn’t prescribe what outdoor play for children looks like, she shares some ideas on the value of outdoor play and how it may be done.

“When I’m visiting services, some educators explain how they take a Reggio Emilia approach and view the environment as the third teacher,” she said. “You don’t necessarily need to bring additional equipment and resources into the natural environment.”

Environments with rich potential for learning and play could have “rustling leaves, grasses, insect hotels, bird gardens, vegetable gardens, tree stumps, logs, creeks, plants and trees”.

They might include “sand, mud, water, rocks, pebbles and textural elements (considering the ages of the children), things to touch and smell.”

Children’s learning is promoted through some unstructured, open-ended play. Being outdoors encourages that.

“The children are free to follow their own interests: use their imagination, explore, be curious, experiment. This is beneficial and really important.”

She said being outside can support an appreciation for nature and living things.

“Noticing living things, finding bugs and watching birds. It opens up a whole avenue for learning.”

Janet has noticed that high-quality services are generally set up with tactile, natural and other materials to promote open-ended exploratory play and learning. 

“Loose-parts play can be valuable for children’s learning. Piping, tree stumps, logs, palettes and crates. Recycled and repurposed items that are loose—that children can move wherever they want—can be used in multiple ways”

So how can services maximise fun and learning but minimise risk?

“By completing risk-assessments and risk-minimisation plans,” she said. “The risk–benefit consideration: What are children going to get out of the experience compared to the risk?”

“Also supervising and constantly reviewing the environment and the groups of children. Educators can involve the children in decision making about boundaries in the outdoor environment.”

One service Janet visited recently was equipped for outdoor play all year round. Rows of gumboots and rain jackets were arranged for each child to grab and go.

“You’ll see children watching the rain, touching puddles, working with mud,” she said.

“There are lots of opportunities for learning when outside that you just can’t have inside.”

For more information, please see the Outdoor play areas in education and care services policy or the resources listed below.

Nature play ideas
  • Gardening

  • Sport and games

  • Loose-parts play, construction, transporting, gathering and collection

  • Noticing: texture, food, habitat for insects, birds or butterflies

  • Climbing, running, rolling, sliding, balancing and jumping

  • Resting and socialising in small groups

  • Imagining and role play

Further reading

Babies and outdoor play: ACECQA fact sheet
Nature play SA Natural playspaces principles
Kidsafe NSW: Challenging play: risky!

Professional development

Attend a session with OSHCsa on loose-parts play

Natural incursions and excursions

Incursions and excursions by Nature Play SA
Mobile junk and nature playground